Willingness, Willfulness, Want, and other W Words.

One of the more humorous stories to come out of my childhood involves a phone conversation I was having with my friend *Barb.  Sometime during the conversation, her father yelled from downstairs, “Barb, you wanna come clean the maggots out of the garbage can?!”  Barb paused, thought about it for a moment, and being one of the smarter, more witty 13 year-olds of our generation replied, “Um…no.”  Barb’s reverence for grammar notwithstanding, the phone call ended rather quickly, and off to maggot cleaning duty she went.  I mean, who would want to clean maggots out of a garbage can, and why in the world would learning how to do so willingly help you at all?  Read on to find out!

  • It’s often easier to know what we don’t want:  When I get out of bed in the morning, if you were to ask me for a list of things I don’t want, I could come up with a pretty decent one, and that’s before my morning coffee.  I don’t want to exercise, I don’t want go food shopping, I don’t want to do paperwork, and I particularly don’t want to wait outside in sub-zero temperatures for my puppy to, em, produce.  Starting down that path, we end up living lives defined by what we don’t want, begrudging our daily routines and obligations, which saps our energy to be present for those seemingly rare moments that we do actually want.  What are we to do?
  • What is Willingness and how can it ultimately help me deal with cleaning the garbage maggots of life?   Willingness is a skill that’s part of a treatment called Dialectical Behavior Therapy  or DBT, developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan.  Willingness is accepting reality.  It’s not likely that many people want to clean the maggots out of the garbage can; however, willingness, accepting the reality of our situation and then behaving in a way in which we are more likely to get our wants and needs met, leads to a more fulfilling life.  I promise this is the last time I’ll mention maggots in this blog post, but imagine what would have happened if Barb had willfully refused to clean out the garbage can.  It’s likely that she and her father would have spent a chunk of the evening arguing, perhaps she would have been grounded, and at the end of the day, those maggots would still have been waiting for her!  This leads us to how willfulness interferes in our ability to participate in our own lives.
  • Willfulness is refusing to accept the reality that we are faced with, and using our energy to rail against it:  Linehan juxtaposes the concept of willingness with willfulness.   Many of you don’t know this, but I have a leg length inequality, which is a fancy way of saying one of my legs is longer than the other.  You’d never notice it, until you do, and then you and I will have a good spirited argument about whether I always walk with a slight limp.  For years, I chose to let this problem keep me on the sidelines of life.  Then, I moved to Southern California, where apparently, the only way to make friends and have a social life is to engage in some sort of outdoor pursuit.  I realized that my willfulness was holding me back.  I was never going to be a star athlete, but I willingly threw myself into different activities.  I can’t tell you how many times I was lapped while awkwardly making my way around the track, or fell during tree pose.  But something had changed, and instead of engaging my inner two-year old, screaming why me?!  I willingly embraced myself, lopsided and all, yes…me.  I even ended up finding an activity that I truly loved, hot yoga.
  • What can I do to recognize that I’m being willful and turn towards willingness?  Anger is part of a range of normal human emotions that we all must experience from time to time.  However, if you notice anger creeping up, for example, when you deny yourself that cigarette you’ve decided to stop smoking, or the voice of that petulant two-year old demanding a piece of cake despite your doctor’s warnings about your blood sugar, those are signs of willfulness.
    • First, recognize that you’re being willful, you can’t change it if you ignore it.
    • Second, don’t beat yourself up!  We’re all willful at one time or another, it’s part of being human.
    • Recognize that you have a choice, to continue to be willful about a situation you cannot change, or willfully participate in the moment.  Choose Radical Acceptance.
    • Recognize that radical acceptance is a process and not an end goal.  You may need to actively choose radical acceptance time and time again.

How do you accept those parts of life that you can’t change, and willingly participate in them?  Comment below!

*Names have been changed

**Yes I chose the name Barb as an homage to Stranger Things #JusticeForBarb


Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

Dr. Scrivani specializes in the Cognitive Behavioral treatment of anxiety and related disorders, behavioral parent training, and provides tele-mental health services to residents of New York, Florida, and internationally. Call (888) 535-5671 or email [email protected] to set up a free consultation.  Visit my website for more information.

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